Great characters either lack empathy or have loads of it. In this post, we have included things for you to consider when you write about empathy.
One of our most popular posts on Writers Write is 37 Ways To Write About Anger. We thought we would look at interesting ways to write about other emotions, including love and fear and happiness and grief.
In this post, we discuss ways to write about empathy.
40 Ways To Write About Empathy
A. What Is Empathy?
According to Psychology Today: ‘Empathy is the ability to recognise, understand, and share the thoughts and feelings of another person, animal, or fictional character. Developing empathy is crucial for establishing relationships and behaving compassionately. It involves experiencing another person’s point of view, rather than just one’s own, and enables prosocial or helping behaviours that come from within, rather than being forced.’
Empathy is stronger than sympathy. As Merriam-Webster explains: ‘Empathy is similar to sympathy, but empathy usually suggests stronger, more instinctive feeling. So a person who feels sympathy, or pity, for victims of a war in Asia may feel empathy for a close friend going through the much smaller disaster of a divorce.’
Empathy is the ability to imagine yourself in another person’s shoes.
B. Three Types Of Empathy
According to psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman, there are three types of empathy:
- Cognitive Empathy: This is the ability to understand how another person feels and thinks.
- Emotional Empathy: This is the ability to feel for another person. It is also known as affective empathy.
- Compassionate Empathy: This is the ability to take your understanding and feelings and be moved to act and to help another person if you can. This is also known as empathic concern.
You can decide how empathetic your character really is when you write about them.
How To Tell If Someone Has Empathy:
- They are not judgemental
- They react rationally and calmly.
- They are sensitive to other people’s feelings.
- They take responsibility for their actions.
- They care about how other people feel.
- They don’t overreact.
- They can maintain relationships.
- They are capable of paying attention and listening to others.
- They behave appropriately in sensitive situations.
C. How To Tell If Someone Lacks Empathy
- They are highly critical of other people.
- They have frequent angry outbursts.
- They accuse other people of being overly sensitive.
- They blame other people for their mistakes.
- They seem unaware of, and not able to care about, other people’s feelings.
- They overreact if they are upset.
- They are unable to sustain a relationship.
- They don’t listen when you speak to them.
- They behave inappropriately in sensitive situations.
If people lack empathy they can be classified with narcissistic or anti-social personality disorders. There is often not a lot you can do to help people like this. It is important to remember that their behaviour is not your fault, and that they will not change. There is nothing you can do to make them feel something they are incapable of feeling.
According to Wikipedia:
- Psychopathy and narcissism are associated with impairments in emotional but not cognitive empathy.
- Bipolar disorder and borderline traits are associated with deficits in cognitive but not emotional empathy.
- Autism spectrum disorders are associated with various combinations, including deficits in cognitive empathy as well as deficits in both cognitive and emotional empathy.
- Schizophrenia has been associated with varying deficits in both types of empathy.
If you want to write about a character who lacks empathy and has one of these disorders it is important to do a lot of research into it. Interview specialists, read extensively, and create a believable character.
D. Which Characters Should Be Empaths?
Empathetic characters are often the moral voice of a story. Remember this when you write about empathy.
A true empath listens carefully without jumping to judgement. They do not interrupt. They do not share the fact they have had a similar experience. They do not immediately propose a solution. Empaths try to understand how another character feels and why they feel that way. A psychologist is the ideal empathetic character.
However, we don’t all have somebody like this in our stories. In general, these characters should show empathy:
- Your protagonist should be empathetic. Most people will not root for a character who is a psychopath. You can write an anti-hero, but you need to make them relatable.
- Your confidant/friend or sidekick character should be empathetic. It stands to reason that the protagonist looks to the friend for advice and help and this character would need to have these qualities.
- If you have a mentor in your story, they are usually empathetic. They are the wise characters who guide and protect your protagonist.
You can choose whether or not these characters are empathetic:
- Your love interest could either be a support or a hindrance. If the former is true, make them empathetic. If the latter is more true, then make them less empathetic.
- Your antagonist should not be empathetic to your protagonist’s story goal. They might understand why they are in opposition to that character, but allowing them to be too caring defeats the purpose of having them there in the first place.
E. Body Language
When you’re writing an empathetic character, include these body language signs:
- Nodding slowly
- Making eye contact
- Squaring shoulders
- Arms at sides
- Raising eyebrows slightly (to show interest)
- Tilting your head
- Relaxing facial muscles
- Placing palms up
Suggested reading: Why Method Writing Makes You A Better Author
F) The Importance Of Empathy In Plotting
As a writer, you can use empathy to complicate the plot:
- You can force a character to feel empathy in such a way that they have to act differently and move the plot forward.
- Empathy can be used as a catalyst to help somebody form a relationship in a story.
- Showing empathy can reveal another side to a character that nobody dreamt existed.
- It can also be a transformative experience. A character who has judged too quickly might show character growth by changing their behaviour after empathising with a person or a situation.
- You can slow down the pace of a story by introducing a situation that has to be dealt with empathetically.
- 37 Ways To Write About Anger
- 29 Ways To Write About Happiness
- 32 Ways To Write About Fear
- 43 Ways To Write About Love
I hope this post has given you some ideas on how to write about empathy.
Top Tip: Use our Character Creation Kit to create great characters for your stories.
by Amanda Patterson
© Amanda Patterson
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